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Seeing is opposing?

October 7, 2009

By Mark Burger

Illinois Solar Energy Association

This column is a response to Frank Schier’s editorial about the wisdom of situating wind farms in “unspoiled” land and the general context of sustainable development [See “Can we choose the wind?” Sept. 23-29, 2009, issue]. These worthy points are raised against a background of what we want and how we get it. We have two seemingly conflicting trends going on here. On one hand, there is a growing awareness of the need to be more localized in procurement of energy and food as well as promote “green” power. The other, seemingly opposite, movement is a growing “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) sentiment against essentially anything that changes the status quo of what one sees or is used to seeing.

Up until the last century, most of what we used or consumed, especially on a daily basis, came from relatively short distances, a day’s ride by horse-drawn power or later on, a day’s train ride. Advances in refrigeration, transportation and other technologies have enabled us to get seemingly fresh food or cheap fuel from thousands of miles away. This enabled us to push these sources out of sight and their consequences out of mind. The age of mass-produced automobiles and trucks, cheaply-priced energy and the enabler of interstate highways encouraged the growth of sprawl and the ability to locally zone away things we need, but don’t want to see, at least immediately out of sight.

But these chickens are coming home to roost. Developing and potential changes in energy supply and demand, plus local, regional and global environmental conditions have shaken this complacency of not caring where our calories or kilowatt hours come from. This disruption has caused many to consider and undertake actions to change how we procure what we need to maintain our standard of living.

We can no longer live in a segregated world where we want certain things but are not willing to accept any consequence for them. We cannot call for revival of Rockford and the Midwest’s industrial base with green technologies, but eliminate entire swaths of locations for them to be sited because we don’t want our view spoiled. We cannot fight the look of a changed landscape to generate clean power while it’s OK to blow up mountain tops to get coal or dig multi-mile holes to extract uranium merely because it’s not in our neighborhood. We can’t effectively address global climate issues and refuse neighbors the ability to install solar panels or even a clothes drying line because it might impact property values. We can’t complain about industrialized animal farms nearby but continue to chow down on cheaply-priced bacon and beef.

Shakepeare’s Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV may have said it best: “We have heard the chimes at midnight,” often interpreted as the carefree days were over for Prince Hal and Jack. If we’re going to be serious about being green, we will have to accept being green, including our own back yard.

Mark Burger is president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association, a chapter of the American Solar Energy Society, and principal of Kestrel Development Company, a renewable energy consulting firm and developer of zero-energy building. He is also a board member of the Illinois League of Conservation Voters.

From the October 7-13, 2009 issue

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